Photo Talk: Lighting – To Flash or Not To Flash?

In my last “Photo Talk” I discussed the use of natural sunlight and how to best take advantage of it.  Outdoor photography and the sun as my light source will always be my preference but that doesn’t always fit into a person’s schedule.  That leads us to the topic of using a flash.  In some situations you have a choice between using a flash or not.  Both these photos were taken at an indoor location that also had natural light coming in from the windows and doors.  My camera automatically chose to activate it’s flash when it calculated the amount of light that was available.  This is the result:

goat using autoflash (c) Lynne Medsker
goat using autoflash (c) Lynne Medsker

It certainly lit up my subject and highlighted the details!  It also gave a funky cast to the eyes and left some hard, black shadows.  By changing my settings to manual I was able to take another shot without using the flash (many point & shoot cameras have a “available light” setting on them as well).  Here is a second version of the same goat:

goat, available light (c) Lynne Medsker
goat, available light (c) Lynne Medsker

This image still shows some details, but not as harshly, and the shadows are much softer.  The natural backlighting highlights her head/face.  I prefer this image over the first one.  Which would you choose?  To improve this I could have adjusted my camera to include some “fill flash” and it would have opened up the details of her eyes and face more than they are in this image.  Fill flash (which is basically a reduced amount of flash) is an awesome tool for picking up highlights and details in natural light without the very evident “flashy” look of a full flash photo.  Check your camera and/or flash to see if you have such a setting, I guarantee you will like the results!

Another tool you can use in the flash vs. no flash battle is a tripod.  Now I will be the first to tell you that my tripod is not my best friend (despite them telling us that repeatedly in photography class).  It’s heavy, it’s awkward, and it’s just one more piece of equipment to mess with.  That being said there are times I am more than happy to employ it!  If you decide that you don’t want to use flash, yet there isn’t much available light, then the tripod can be your solution.  Shooting in low light situations makes any movement of your camera translate into an out-of-focus photo (I’m sure you’ve heard the term “camera shake” and seen the results of photos taken without enough light).  Although it can make for some interestingly creative photos, most of the time we want to see crisp details in the images that we are capturing. Most cameras will even warn you in those situations with a symbol of some kind indicating that you don’t have enough light to take a clear photo holding your camera by hand. Here are two shots from a recent photo shoot, the first using flash and the second one with a tripod & natural light.

flash photography (c) Lynne Medsker
flash photography (c) Lynne Medsker
window light with a tripod (c) Lynne Medsker
window light with a tripod (c) Lynne Medsker

What a difference!  Both have their advantages and disadvantages so really sometimes this comes down to personal taste and what story/message you are trying to convey. Which of these two images do you prefer?  Why? I decided to leave the warm coloring in the second image but you could change the white balance and reshoot (or color correct it afterwards) to make the whites pure white if you decided to.  Perhaps a talk about white balance and color correction is in the near future…check back often!

There are many other aspects, thoughts and tips on using flash in your photos, but those are for another day!  Until then, happy shooting!

Focused & ready,


27 thoughts on “Photo Talk: Lighting – To Flash or Not To Flash?

  1. Thanks Lynne,

    I am going to have the check my D80 manuel to see if it has the fill flash. I agree with you the second pictures are my favorites, they have a softness to them that is more pleasing.
    I like the little mini lessons you have been giving on your blog.

  2. I always try to use natural light if possible. The flash makes the images sometimes look a little to “tabloidish” for my liking, but i will fill if I have to my camera has a flash power adjustment which I have used to my liking a lot. Thanks for the post.

  3. For cameras that allow changing lenses, another option is to use a lens with a very wide aperture. My standard everyday lens is a Nikon 18 – 200mm VR… it serves nearly every photographic need I have. I also carry in my bag a Nikon 50mm f1.2 which, with suitable settings, allows me to take photographs without a tripod or a flash by the light of a candle. The f1.2 lens is indispensible when it comes to taking photographs of a stage performance (such as a play or a rock concert) using only the available stage lighting.

    Nice blog posting, thanks.

  4. I prefer the second photographs in each set as well because of their more realistic and intimate tones. There’s something a bit too caught-you-in-the-act about the product of a direct, full flash. The subject comes out pasty and flat because of the sharp contrasts that you noted. I believe that, if a photographer is creative, he or she can find ways around the need to ever use direct (full) flash in any situation. I try not to be too prejudicial about it, but I often base a negative judgment about a photographer’s abilities on this use of direct flash. It just reminds me too much of the stereotypical home photos. Perhaps my distaste for it is too radical, but that is presently how it seems to me.

    1. Hi Benjamin! Thanks for the comments, I like the less-flashy versions as well. There are times when I want a quick “snapshot” and I get lazy and use a flash but if I am trying to capture something more memorable natural light just adds something special to the images.

  5. you can just use a foam core bounce board to get light up into the subjects face and it works well, but does not look as harsh, and beats both options you have here in my opinion, but is harder to pull off and more cumbersome to carry a fill board.

    1. Excellent suggestion Mike! They have some nice reflectors that work well but the foam core would be a lot easier to find and easier on the budget too. 🙂 This was my second post on lighting and each time I keep thinking of more that needs to be said…now you’ve got me thinking about writing a post about ways to modify your light!

  6. Thanks for the interesting blog. I am a newbie to the art of photography and learning as i go. i also prefer to go without a flash as sometimes it makes the subject really harsh. i like to take moody photos on overcast days and fortunately we get plenty of those in the UK 🙂 I find that the colours are more defined, but again it depends on the light available. i will be back for more ideas and hints.

    1. Thanks for writing Cindy! There is so much to learn about photography, isn’t there? I love all the available information on the internet…that wasn’t around when I was learning! I’d love to see your “moody” photos. 🙂

  7. I like the first shot of the goat, it has more character – I guess mainly because the goat was either shocked or confused by the flash. But since we’re talking lighting…nah, “tabloid goat” still takes the cake for me! 😉

    1. Hi Katha!
      I like the composition and close-up details in the first one…had I known I was going to use these images for a blog post I would have retaken one similar to that to show the natural lighting. I haven’t done any touch ups to the photos, eliminate the funky cast in her eyes and perhaps tone down the contrast a bit and the first one wouldn’t be bad at all. Thanks for commenting!

  8. I despise using flash. Whenever I use it, I consider it to be just a “snapshot” photo, worthy only of family memories or something.
    The only exception is when my subject is against a bright background, such as the sky.
    When lighting is low, I obviously need to widen the aperture (but careful with possible depth of field problems!), slow the shutter, and/or increase ISO. Then I repair the white balance using RAW adjustment tools.
    There are costs: primarily grain and blur… but we must choose to allow more of one depending on our requirements. Grain can be slightly reduced with noise reduction tools.
    I do some sports photography, and even outdoors I need to crank up ISO and have some grain in order to get a fast enough shutter speed. However, graininess is more acceptable in sports photography… it’s a given. Freezing at least the head/torso of the primary athlete is more important. The ball / bat / puck / arms / legs do not need to be completely frozen. In fact, some blur is usually quite useful to show the action. The only time a slower shutter speed (permitting lower ISO) is acceptable is when panning a moving subject. But I’m NO GOOD at this!!!

  9. Hi! I consider myself a very amateur. I use a Canon EOS 350D which I got second-hand. I prefer the softer pictures without flash. Why? Because the with-flash pictures are similar to the ones I take, and I’m trying to get away from them. =) I’m still learning about my camera, so mostly I get the tabloid-looking shots that someone else mentioned.
    You take great pictures!

  10. It’s as old as the art of photography itself, but up to this day, it’s the utmost thing that annoy me at the end of the day when I transfer my photos to my hard drives. It is really nice to know that some people out there really take it in to the center point.

    I hate tripod, but I love the result it brought with. It’s love-hate relationship.

    And it’s not only the problem with light, there are circumstance where we are not allowed to deploy flash, here’s where experience jump in, here’s where I try to adjust perspectives. Great post!


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